January 26, 2013

Life Of Pi (01/26/2013)

Lettergrade: B-

After a spectacular shipwreck, the staging of which rivals James Cameron's Titanic in terms of power and technical mastery, much of Life Of Pi takes place on a lifeboat lost at sea, inhabited only by our title character and an underfed Bengal tiger.

I like Ang Lee movies, generally, and although I appreciate the beauty, stunning imagery, and deliberate pace of this one, the picture ultimately reached a point in the second half where I found it a little frustratingly difficult to decipher, often leaving me feeling about as lost as Pi himself is.

The first half of the movie takes care to show Pi's family life and upbringing in Pondicherry, India. His father, a small business owner who operates a local zoo, among other endeavors, attempts to teach Pi and his brother various life lessons, not all of which sink in right away. Dad is particularly dismayed at Pi's interest in (and acceptance of) multiple religions, making clear that he'd much rather his son believe in something that he doesn't agree with than to accept all things blindly.

These early scenes are designed to show Pi's relationship with spirituality and religion and his view of the world, meaning that when all of it is tested in the film's later half, we have context and a frame of reference by which to relate to everything he's lost. I suppose this first half of the movie left much more of an impression on me than the second half… even if it is lengthy and doesn't necessarily appear to play to the movie's main substance, it provides interesting background and texture, both of which I oddly enjoyed much more than the main "meat" of the story itself.

I've spoken to a handful of people who loved the book but were similarly a little lukewarm on the movie (and vice versa). When I start to state my opinion, people often interject with, "the movie lost you when Pi got to the island, right?" - referring to a bizarre, carnivorous mass (vaguely shaped like Hindu deity Vishnu) that Pi encounters late in the film. It actually had lost me a bit before that... during the picture's impressionistic midsection which was deeply symbolic and almost plays like an abstract art film.

Even early on, though, I had a beef with the movie's hackney framing device… It's a novelist that the "present day" Pi (Irrfan Khan) tells his story to. Played by Rafe Spall, the significantly less rat-like son of Harry Potter actor Tim Spall, the "writer" is an empty cipher of a character who only really sits there looking slack-jawed, asking dumb questions, and having moving dialogue delivered at him. Plus, as a character, he's there because he's having trouble coming up with an idea for his second book and wants to hear someone else's amazing life story, which he'll then presumably turn into another successful book... all without having done much more than write everything down. Weak, man... just weak. I was kind of hoping that Richard Parker, the Bengal Tiger from the raft, would come out of nowhere at the end and eat him, but since he would have been, like, 70 at the time, I had a feeling it was unlikely.

January 20, 2013

Argo (01/20/2013)

Lettergrade: C+

We finally got around to seeing Argo last week… The movie tells the true story of how CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, who also directed) got six foreign service workers out of revolution-torn Iran in 1980 by posing as the crew for a crappy science-fiction movie. Perhaps I had unnaturally high expectations stemming from an awards season where the picture has gotten a lot of attention, but I thought the movie was just "okay." Big sections of it actually struck me as a little imbalanced and weirdly paced at times.

The opening of the film is strong, as is the second half (although Affleck and his screenwriter took some biiiiiiig liberties with the actual events, including a dramatic chase on an airport runway that is a complete work of fiction), but the scenes in between were the ones that came off as the most out of place and self-serving. Specifically, I mean the Hollywood scenes. To give his fake movie some credibility, Affleck recruits a Hollywood prosthetic effects guy played by John Goodman, who in turn gets a producer played by Alan Arkin involved. Arkin's character is a composite of several people who were actually involved in the real mission, but in the film he's basically just playing the exact same character that Dustin Hoffman played in 1998's Wag The Dog. They license an actual script that had been on the market for a while, hold casting sessions, set up an office at The Burbank Studios (which is now Warner Bros.), and get a couple blurbs written about them in Variety and the Hollywood Reporter on the off chance, I guess, that someone in Iran subscribes to either and follows entertainment news fervidly.

This segment, too, shows events that didn't quite happen the way the movie says they did, and I must say I wondered why they merit so much screen time. Nearly every scene ends with a snappy inside-Hollywood joke ("You want to be a big-shot in Hollywood without actually doing anything? You'll fit right in!") and I'm not sure what Goodman and Arkin are even really doing in the movie other than to give it some comic relief. They don't have anything to do with the success of the mission, ultimately, other than sitting by a phone in case someone from Iran calls to verify that this "Argo" movie is really a real movie that's really being made. Nearly all of the time spent setting up the fake movie cover in that first half is entirely inconsequential to the movie's second half.

These complaints aside, however, I just felt that the movie lacked personality and heart. You never get to know any of the foreign service workers who are trying to get out of Iran, although we are given brief thumbnail histories here and there. We get an underdeveloped backstory to Affleck's character which, even if it is true, feels like a cliché from the movie device rulebook. Breaking Bad's Brian Cranston, appearing as Affleck's boss at the CIA, leaves the strongest impression, really, and he's not even all that major a character in flick.

The real story of Argo is an amazing one, to be sure, but I always try to be careful to not confuse my feelings for a real-life event with my feelings for whatever the movie achieves independently. Does that make me a cold bastard? Yeah, probably, but I'm annoyed when people give a movie that has a lot of problems a big pass when the magic words "based on a true story" appear somewhere on the film or it's trailer. That sort of thing can give a movie a little more poignance and intrigue - and I guess it does here - but it shouldn't absolve a movie from not quite working.